Looking to join a CSA? Community Supported Agriculture vs. Customer Supported Aggregators

Greetings, eaters in the DC/MD/VA region.

First and foremost, pat yourself on the back for seeking real, whole foods from local farms. Life is busy. Cheap, already-cooked, fast food is hurled at you through advertising campaigns and made convenient with locations and hours of operation that fit every human being’s schedule. Not to mention, many of us have been trained to this mistaken mantra that “organic food is just too expensive” but, alas, YOU are searching for farm fresh produce, environmentally and ethically sound meats, and farmers you can trust.

Perhaps you long for an experience you had as a child or in another country: a bustling marketplace you visit daily, where you can buy fruit from a farmer, bread from a baker and experience a vibrant, healthy community. Perhaps you or a member of your family are facing a health hurdle, allergy or food intolerance or a heightened awareness of the industrialized food system that has led you to seek the cleanest, greenest ingredients.

There are a few Farmers’ Markets near you. The one on Saturday mornings sounds great, if you can fit it in around other commitments. But then again, your window to shop is Sunday mornings, so you can do meal prep for the week before it starts. So now what? You’ve Googled. You are facing a couple of choices.

There are a bunch of listings for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Programs. They sound like a no-brainer. You invest in the farm and farmers early in the spring and then every week, voila! Amazing, real food for you all season. Just pick your pick-up location, day, and time window and plan to be there every week. Yes, you totally want this. All your friends talk about being part of a CSA. You’re sold.

The season finally arrives and the adventure begins. You are overwhelmed by how fresh and flavorful salad greens can be. You see droplets of water on the Swiss chard not because of an overhead mister, but because it was just harvested and washed moments ago. You see something unusual, turnip-like… “Wow. This rich, purple and green thing is beautiful. I’m not entirely sure what it is…”

And there you are: an official CSA member. This is the first of several new vegetables you will encounter on this journey. Will you:

  1. Embrace exactly what you signed up for: seasonal vegetables. A spring full of greens. A summer full of squash. tomatoes and peppers (and canning and preserving). A perplexing “purple rocket thing,” aka kohlrabi. A stockpile of starches come fall. You have now been transported to the eating experience of your ancestors. You get what you get, when you get it, based on the region you live in. Your offspring resist but you persist! You learn how to make ten different things with one vegetable. You got to the Farmers’ Market or grocery store too, for all the other things you like to eat and additional ingredients. You find yourself spending a lot more time in the kitchen and you like it. Sure, you feel genuine disappointment when strawberry season comes to an end, but then you see blueberries, then blackberries, then you learn to “flash freeze” or make jam…

    OR
  2. Look at that kohlrabi, three weeks later, defeated and perishing in your crisper [sigh] and wonder if there is a way to buy local produce, just the stuff you know you like, without having to budget time to visit a farm. Google, again. There it is: “Local, delivery, fresh, from the farm, buzzword and another buzzword, and avocados. Put it in the cart. All these things. Click. Winner winner chicken dinner. This is perfect for you.

    There is, of course, no right or wrong answer. There is always grey area. This is a blog and these are just my thoughts.

    If you choose option 1, me and you (or parallel versions of us) are probably already acquainted. Your kids have a favorite chicken or goat at our farm. I’ve worked with your daughter on her Girl Scout Silver Award. You’ve gone ahead and explained kohlrabi to a newer CSA member on our Facebook page. You were completely cool and understanding during our egg shortage because you saw us upset after losing 40 hens in the middle of an afternoon to someone’s perfectly sweet dogs who were just following their instinct and the pack. You’ve taught me that a simple vinegar can transform my salad dressing. You’ve brought your in-laws by more than once. Your teenager is the only teenager I have ever met who asks for gherkins. We have genuinely missed seeing each other over the winter.This is Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a direct exchange and relationship between the eater and the farmer. There is no middle man – we are meeting in the middle. We see one another through peaceful smiles amid free-ranging children and know how hard the other one has to work to be right there at CSA pick-up at that time every week. The chaos melts. We did it. We are doing something right for the week, the earth, the next generation.

    So what about option 2? It may very well be perfect for you and that’s completely okay. [Note: I adore Washington Green Grocer] BUT this cannot and should not be called Community Supported Agriculture. I can’t help but call it “Customer Supported Aggregation” and I fear that sounds worse than I intend it to. Farmers are getting paid in the exchange, albeit wholesale, and lots of farmers love wholesale and sell only that way.

    Furthermore, these custom grocery deliverers are filling a gap in the market that none of us farmers have the ability to do: Bring everything we grow plus other groceries directly to the doors of everyone who wants to support us. When would we farm? What I mean is, a farm can’t compete with that level of convenience and that’s okay. Apples to oranges.

    What I’m trying to say, in yet another op-ed blog-ish post, is that the acronym “CSA” shouldn’t be thrown around willy-nilly by an online grocery provider or subscriber. Doing so deeply diminishes the beautiful commitment and relationship between members and farmers.

    A CSA member doesn’t just support their farm by their purchase, they support it by prioritizing it.

    So THANK YOU, CSA members, for meeting us in the middle. And high-five to the rest of you conscious eaters who are using a local delivery service. Life is busy, no judgment here. Just don’t call it a CSA.

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